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While hiding in the hallway, I listened as the commander retold the story I told him a few hours earlier.
It was the story of how my daughter, Hayley, had gone from aspiring college student bent on becoming a physical therapist to landing in that career field with the Air Force. The catch, though, required her to report to boot camp three days later, leaving her parents almost no time to come to grips with the fact that their middle child was leaving the nest.
The commander knew I was listening in the hallway. Hayley didn’t have a clue.
It was Friday, and I had just flown into Rapid City, SD, where Hayley is stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base.
She phoned home a few weeks earlier, giddily telling me that she had won her unit’s airman of the year award.
After hearing the news and deciding to make the trip just days before leaving, I worked the phones until I got through to Hayley’s first sergeant, who passed me off to her section supervisor.
I told him I was heading that way, and asked if it were possible for me to be present when her commander gave her the award.
He said he would check and get back to me. When he did, he, the commander and the first sergeant had hatched a plan to allow me not only to attend, but also actually hand her the award.
Here’s how it worked: Once I arrived Thursday night, I was spirited directly into the base’s version of a Motel 6 and sequestered until the ceremony.
Ellsworth, a B1 Bomber base smack dab in the middle of the endless prairie between South Dakota’s Black Hills and Badlands, isn’t particularly big and the odds were just too great that Hayley might spot me were I to wander around outside.
On Friday morning, the section supervisor, commander and I held a very clandestine meeting to go over the details of the ceremony, including how they planned to get me there at just the right time.
At exactly 1515 hours (that’s 3:15 p.m. to us civilians), the first sergeant pulled up to my quarters and drove me to the ceremony.
When we arrived, she hustled me into her office and waited until the commander walked by, stuck his head in the door and nodded that the ceremony was about to begin.
Moments later, I stood in the hallway listening as he recounted some of her accomplishments that led to the award, along with the story I had told him earlier that day.
Although it took only a couple of minutes, my mind raced through years of memories of Hayley, an indefatigable optimist who never met a stray puppy — human or canine — she didn’t want to bring home, a trait directly traceable to her mom.
There were memories of joyous reunions after I returned from months away from home in search of better jobs, and harrowing ones such as the time toddler-aged Hayley gulped a mouthful of liquid furniture polish and I was certain she was going to die.
My woolgathering was cut short, though, when I heard my cue from the commander.
“Airman Carlson,” he said, “I’m not going to present this award to you today. Instead, there is someone here who I’d like to present it for me.”
At that, the first sergeant motioned me into the room.
Now, I’ve seen plenty in my nearly five decades on this planet. But if I live five decades more, I doubt I will ever see such a combination of shock, disbelief and overwhelming joy on a person’s face as I saw at that moment on my daughter’s.
Both of us fought back the inevitable tears — she in a game attempt to maintain her military bearing in front of her entire unit, me to be able to read a citation from the Kentucky House of Representatives, courtesy of state Rep. Kim King.
We both failed, but it didn’t matter because when I looked out at the crowd there was barely a dry eye in the room.
There are no boundaries that can contain a father’s love, nor any that limit his children’s ability to prove that truism, regardless of distance or years.
For that, and this past weekend’s remarkable memories, I will be eternally grateful.